American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 16

The Improvement of Teaching

Derek Bok
Harvard University

Sylvia Grider
George Rupp


Francis Oakley
Williams College

I suppose all of us, ladies and gentlemen, have from our particular institutions testimonies to bad teaching in the distant past. We ourselves have a set of reminiscences published by Bliss Perry, a graduate of the College who went on to teach at Williams, then at Princeton and Harvard, and he also attests (as a sort of freebie for Derek Bok) to the inaudibility of lecturing at Harvard in the late 19th century—though, to be honorable about it, I should indicate that he was referring to a visiting lecturer, none other, in fact, than Matthew Arnold. He also spoke about the teaching of classics at Williams and indicated that it nearly turned him off Latin literature for life. He noted that the opening exercise in Latin instruction in his freshman year in 1877 was exactly the same as the one his father had had in 1848 and, to make it worse, exactly the same as his son had in 1916. Curricular stability with a vengeance! I hasten to add that he spoke affectionately, warmly, and admiringly of the teaching of Mark Hopkins and of G. Stanley Hall, the pioneering psychologist who went on to become the first president of Clark University. Let me take as my point of departure, ladies and gentlemen, the hinge, as it were, of Derek Bok’s talk, that “the most balanced summary of teaching today . . . is not that it has slipped in quality, but that now, as in the past, there is ample room for improvement.” I propose to begin with the latter issue of improvement to which he devoted much of his excellent talk, before going on to a former claim of stability in teaching quality to which I want to devote most of the brief time at my disposal.

On the matter of improving teaching, I think the battery of steps being proposed makes very good sense. These steps are doable, eminently practicable, and some of them, I sense, are already quite widely adopted across the country. Taken together as a group they should send a very clear message and should make a very real impact. I have only a couple of comments to make on them. First, having been in receipt of quantitative student evaluations of practically every course I myself have taught for over 20 years, and having had as Dean of the Faculty at Williams to weigh that sort of evidence against the judgments conveyed by formal interviews conducted with students about the performance of their teachers, against peer judgments of teaching by colleagues visiting a series of classes, and against judgments solicited from alumni, I would strongly endorse the view that such student evaluations are certainly not to be dismissed as mere popularity contests. They can be very helpful to the individual instructor in improving his or her teaching; they can be very helpful to those charged with the task of advising instructors on ways to improve their teaching; and I regard them as an almost essential part of the process of seriously and equitably evaluating teaching performance in the context of reappointment and promotion decisions. But I believe we should be very clear about their purpose. I would endorse the use of such evaluations for two purposes: the improvement of teaching itself and its evaluation by the institution. And I view those ends as other than and far more important than that of helping students to pick their courses on the basis of the teaching ability of the instructor. For that reason, I would very much oppose the publication by the institution itself of evaluative data it has collected. For the institution to do that strikes me as in some measure punitive and of sending an unfortunate message to undergraduates who are already prone to stressing teaching rather than learning. (I believe one of the committees looking at Harvard teaching right at the beginning of the century concluded that students were spending too much time in the classroom and not learning enough—not spending enough time studying outside it.) In small face-to-face institutions moreover, those located in small college towns in which professional and social life tend to overlap, the publication of course evaluation data can be quite demoralizing—especially for faculty just starting out or for those further along in their careers who, for one reason or another, hit a bad patch.

Second, in discussing practical steps not only to improve teaching effectiveness but also to sustain it across the course of a long career, I think we should not lose sight of the fact that good teaching is not simply a matter of technique but depends also on a sure command of the subject matter being taught and on a degree of passionate engagement in that subject matter. The fact is so obvious that it may seem redundant to emphasize it. But we should not forget that the Carnegie survey data collected at regular intervals since 1969 have revealed that a large percentage of faculty members nationally consistently report themselves to be currently engaged in no scholarly project, and a clear majority report themselves as having published little or nothing. A clear majority. And yet after being involved for more than 20 years in the evaluation of faculty performance college-wide, I conclude that the continuing intellectual curiosity about and scholarly engagement in one’s own subject is a truly critical factor, perhaps the most important factor, in the ability to sustain an effective teaching performance across a career that may last, after all, from 30 to 40 years. We should resist, I believe, the persistent pressure mentally to put asunder what the academy has long and properly joined together—namely, scholarship and teaching. And in our preoccupation with the environment prevailing at our research universities and leading colleges, we should not overlook the fact that one of the most important and practical steps that could be taken to sustain good teaching across faculty careers at the full and very broad range and variety of institutions that make up our higher educational system would be the continuing and more universal provision of institutional support for sustained scholarly engagement. Broadly and generously defined, of course, though not too broadly and generously defined.

Mention of the Carnegie survey data leads me to turn now to Derek Bok’s first point: that although it could always be improved, teaching has not slipped in quality. He is right, of course. And the point deserves very strong emphasis today. Of all institutions, the academy should be able to cope with criticism. Indeed it should be able to cope with it far better than it usually does. But on this issue of teaching and research, some of the recent spate of criticism has in my opinion been totally unmeasured, mounted in an historical void, and betraying a remarkable lack of interest in the statistical data available. Instead, proscription tends to preempt analysis, in place of evidence we get a sort of disheveled anecdotalism, and a free-fire zone is created for eye-catching and sensational claims of the type favored by Page Smith (“The American professoriate is in full flight from teaching”) or the deplorable Charles Sykes (“The academic culture is not merely indifferent to teaching but . . . actively hostile to it”). Of course, that is utter rubbish, but if one can rely on the blurbs on the book jacket, that fact did not prevent its reviewers in The New York Times and The Washington Post, struck down it seems by a veritable infection of hyperbole, from labeling Sykes’s book as “an incisive and convincing indictment;” or even as “stupendously provocative and important.”

About faculty attitudes towards teaching and research, the amount of time spent on them and related activities, about research productivity as measured by publications and so on, we have at our disposal for the period from the late 1960s onwards quite rich sets of survey data. And those data have a good deal to tell us about the subject—some of it quite startling, some a little puzzling, but all of it tending to reshape the teaching-research issue along more complex lines rendering it less rewarding material for those energized by the joys of polemic. Time permits me to note just a couple of facts that stand out from those data and a couple of conclusions drawn by analysts like Martin Trow and Everett Ladd which strike me as warranted. The facts: First, that in response to the 1989 Carnegie survey no less than 70 percent of faculty overall indicated that their primary interest lay in teaching rather than research. And if you break that figure down by institutional sector, while it is hardly surprising that 93 percent of faculty at two-year colleges indicated that primary interest, it is more startlingly, I think (given the current spate of criticism), that 33 percent of those at the research universities said the same, and 55 percent of those at the doctorate-granting institutions. Second, that research productivity as measured by publication activity was broadly consonant with what faculty reported about the primary focus of their interests. Thirty-four percent overall reported they were not currently engaged in any scholarly project. Twenty-six percent appear to have published nothing. Fifty-six percent had never written or edited a book, either alone or in collaboration with anybody else, and about 60 percent have published no more than five articles in the professional journals; while, of course, a smallish group of compulsive recidivists were meanwhile publishing up a storm.

What about the conclusions to be drawn from these and a whole series of related findings over the past 20 years? So far as commitment to teaching goes, the first is reassuring—namely, that “the normative climate [in American higher education], as reflected in academics’ personal preferences, is far more favorable to teaching” than it is usually taken to be (Fulton and Trow). “Most college and university professors in the United States do not think of themselves as research people,” and their actual behavior reflects that fact (Ladd).

The second conclusion is less reassuring, and my two predecessors on this panel have touched upon it. It seems clear that, in aggregate at least, the structure of extrinsic incentives and rewards in the academy is markedly tilted in the direction of research. And yet in 1989, over 60 percent of faculty overall indicated their belief that teaching effectiveness should be the primary criterion for promotion of faculty. One could argue with that, but that is what they indicated. And 34 percent felt, at least, that the pressure to publish was having the effect of reducing the quality of teaching at their university or college—one could argue about that, too, but that is what they said. Hence Ladd’s conclusion that “an ascendant model in academe positing probably what faculty should be doing, is seriously out of touch with what they actually do and want to do.” That conclusion, I think, calls for thoughtful scrutiny and, if correct, for an appropriate array of responses of the type recently suggested by Ernest Boyer in his Carnegie report, Scholarship Reconsidered—responses, I should add, that will have to be calibrated differentially for the extraordinarily wide array of institutions and institutional sectors here in the United States. But whatever the case, it is a far cry from alarmist talk about a flight from teaching or even a hostility to it, the existence of which the available evidence simply does not support.

Why belabor the point? Well, because recent critiques, punitive in tone and demoralizing to our faculty members (most of whom in my experience are really very serious about their teaching responsibilities)—because these critiques are being read, or at least they are being glanced at. To that fact I can attest from my flow of correspondence from alumni and from the sort of questions I am asked as I go around the country speaking with alumni. And I am afraid that they are beginning to shape in the minds of the public a rather damaging (damagingly inaccurate and unfair) picture of attitudes and conditions in higher education. In addressing ourselves, then, to the ongoing effort to improve teaching at our institutions, as we should properly be doing, we have, alas, to be alert to the possibility that this very effort may be taken, ironically, as some sort of implicit admission of the accuracy of that unfair picture. And that would be extremely irritating, especially for one who has spent most of his teaching career at a college where student expectations for teaching quality are enormously high, and where the institutional commitment to the central importance of good teaching is clear, consistent, unwavering, unambiguous. And proudly so. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.